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The incredible saga of amazing geriatric hillbilly Marideth Sisco, the singer from Winter's Bone

The Winter of Our Great Content

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When the independent drama Winter's Bone took home best film and screenplay honors from Sundance 2010, it established director Debra Granik and young star Jennifer Lawrence as cinema talents to watch. But the unexpected rise of another, much less prominent cast member has provided a story so genuinely heartwarming that it puts even the most irresistible cute-baby-seal photo to shame.

Marideth Sisco was a retired 60-something journalist and part-time musician in the Ozark town of West Plains, Mo., coping with a heart condition and getting by on her meager retirement savings, when she had the chance encounter that would lead to her becoming a minor celebrity — and an inspiration to people in the autumn of their years who are still haunted by a dream deferred. As Sisco told the Scene recently, it all started a few years ago, when author Daniel Woodrell was in West Plains with some film people, scouting locations for a movie based on a book he'd written: a "country noir" novel about an Ozark teen trying to hold her family together while tracking down her meth-dealing absentee father.

On a tip, Woodrell & Co. headed over to the home of Rick Cochran, where Cochran, Sisco and several other musicians had gotten together, as they often did, to play the folk and mountain music they all loved. "Someone had a small video camera," Sisco says, "but we didn't know he was filming us. So they stayed for a while, then they left — and that's the last we heard of them for two years."

And two years almost to the day later, Sisco got a call from one of the film's screenwriters, Anne Rosellini. "She said, 'We just can't get that song ["Wind and Rain"] out of our heads.' " The filmmakers wanted to use Sisco in the movie.

Naturally, Sisco assumed they wanted her to record some music for the soundtrack, but that wasn't what they had in mind. As Sisco recalls it, "She said, 'No no no! We have scene written in the movie for you.' And I said, 'What?!' "

Not only does Sisco sing in that scene, which features some townsfolk sitting around playing music in a living room, but her voice — pure, haunting and resonating with an authenticity that could only come from a lifetime in the region — is featured prominently throughout the soundtrack.

When the filmmakers first asked her to sing "The Missouri Waltz," Sisco had hesitations, due to the original version's racist lyrics. So they asked her if she could fix it, and she took out the offensive language. She recorded herself on her little Zoom H2 handheld recorder and sent an MP3 file to the filmmakers.

A few months later, they called her back and said they needed the higher-quality .wav files. "I said, 'God, I threw that away months ago,' " Sisco says. "They said, 'Oh, that's too bad. It begins the movie now.' "

So they sent her to a recording studio to try to recapture the unaffected magic of her first recording. "I recorded the damn thing five times," Sisco says, "And I never could match the recording I had gotten the first time. They ended up using that. That's why the crickets and the wind are in there. The quality of the track was so limited that they had to put extra stuff in there."

Now that Winter's Bone has made a huge splash at arthouses the world over, Sisco and her backup band Blackberry Winter — featuring some of the players who accompanied her on the soundtrack — have been traveling the globe on what she calls The Amazing Geriatric Hillbilly U.S. World Tour, performing music from the film in places like New York City, Dallas, Los Angeles and even Italy, for the Torino International Film Festival. When they play The End on Sunday, it will be a personal highlight.

"It's kind of like going to Mecca for musicians," she says.

So is she intimidated? "I could say no, but I would have said that LA wasn't going to be intimidating — but then we played at Hollywood Forever, and everybody who showed up was in the movies. There were recognizable faces all over the place. I was practically struck dumb."

And as far as the whole "hillbilly" thing goes, Sisco wears the label proudly, even if, as a left-leaning lesbian, she may not fit the stereotype. Ultimately, she says there's one defining characteristic for hillbillies: obstinacy.

So is Sisco obstinate? "I have been known to be. But I try to curb that as much as I can. The band will tell you that I'm not obstinate, I just have to have my own way," she says, laughing heartily.

Email music@nashvillescene.com.

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